BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival attracts star line-up

ACCLAIMED author Anne Fine and academic Dr Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough are among an illustrious line-up of speakers at this weekend’s BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead.

‘Tearing Up The Rule Book’ is the theme that will be discussed by a provocative panel including celebrated actresses Sheila Hancock and Juliet Stevenson, journalist Simon Heffer and novelist and filmmaker Tariq Ali.

The creator of Mrs Doubtfire, Anne Fine (pictured above), and Durham University lecturer Eleanor Barraclough explain which free thinkers inspired them and what they are both most looking forward at the festival which runs from tomorrow, Friday 6 to Sunday, November 8 and also includes a varied programme of musical performances.

Do you consider yourself a free thinker – if so, why? Anne Fine: I’d certainly hope that I have an open mind, and that I don’t take everything on trust. Clearly, going to university helped, in that during the years I studied History and Politics I became very aware of my own views changing radically from those I’d simply absorbed from my parents without any thoughts of my own.

Moving to America for seven years also made a great difference. Living somewhere else, it isn’t simply the new culture that you start to think about in depth, it’s also the one you left behind.

Also, I was married to a professional philosopher. I remember him pushing himself up from the breakfast table one day, to go into the university, saying, “Right, then. Off I go, to prod the lardy lumps into a bit of real thought.” He questioned everything, and I suppose I got a little in that habit too.

Many of my books for young people are designed to provoke thought.  A book like Bill’s New Frock sets off discussions about gender assumptions. Charm School has been described as “Germaine Greer for Juniors”. The Chicken Gave It to Me raises all the issues surrounding compassion in world farming.  The Road of Bones discusses how easily a nation can end up trading valued freedoms for ‘security’.

The novel still is the best vehicle we have for ethical enquiry, asking as it does the famous question, “How Ought We to Live?” This is as true for literature for young people as it is for the great books for adults.

Anne Fine, the second Children's Laureate and a distinguished prize-winning author has written for adults and over 40 books for children of all ages including The Tulip Torch, Flour Babies and Madame Doubtfire which was turned into Hollywood film, Mrs Doubtfire starring the late Robin Williams.

Anne Fine, the second Children’s Laureate and a distinguished prize-winning author, has written for adults and over 40 books for children of all ages including The Tulip Torch, Flour Babies and Madame Doubtfire, which was turned into Hollywood film, Mrs Doubtfire starring the late Robin Williams.

Which free thinkers inspired you growing up? Anne Fine: I was educated in Northampton, where there’s a statue to Charles Bradlaugh MP, the political activist and founder of the National Secular Society. It’s no big deal to say you’re an atheist now, but it was an act of real courage to admit publically to that lack of belief in his own times.

Of course, I admire the great 19th Century social reformers and philanthropists enormously, and when I was asked to choose a subject for the BBC radio programme Great Lives, I had no problem in choosing William Beveridge, the economist who laid the foundations for the welfare state.

Eleanor Barraclough: I’ve always been attracted to the wild, remote corners of the world, particularly the far north (as you can see from my forthcoming book, To the Ends of the Earth, which is about Viking exploration and far-travel).

Growing up, my heroes were the slightly mad sort of free thinkers who would take off to explore some godforsaken frozen wilderness – men like the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who led the first team to cross Greenland in 1888.

Nansen was a true renaissance man: only days before he set off for Greenland he defended his PhD in the field of neuroscience, and later on he won the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m not planning to compete with his achievements …

I also remember being captivated by the explorer Benedict Allen’s tv series Ice Dogs, where he travelled 1,000 miles through the harshest winter in Siberian memory, with two reindeer herders and a team of husky dogs. I don’t think any programme has ever inspired me so much.

As an academic, I’ve found my own way of travelling to some pretty outlandish and interesting places for my research on the Vikings: Arctic Norway and Greenland were probably my favourites.

And it wasn’t just men who got to go on far-flung adventures, the Old Norse sagas also describe intrepid women such as Gudrid, who travelled to North America in around 1000 AD and even gave birth out there. I’m very pleased that the Vikings were such far-travellers – definitely some free thinkers among them – because that makes my job ever so much fun!

Away from work and research, it’s free thinkers such as the Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson – author of the Moomin books – who have inspired me the most.

Born in 1914, Tove Jansson had an extraordinary life and wasn’t afraid to go against the grain: for almost thirty years she spent much of her time on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finmark with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä. She’s always been a hero of mine: someone who was true to herself and happy to live the life less ordinary.

How important is it in this day and age that we question and debate ideologies in Britain when those in so many countries are oppressed by religion and political dogma?

Anne Fine: I find the lack of freedom of expression and belief in some other countries absolutely chilling. I think I grew up taking these freedoms entirely for granted, and felt protected in that respect by almost every aspect of the culture around me.

But certain areas of the world now impinge on our own in a far more critical and obvious fashion than they ever did before. It does make one feel both anxious and insecure about how those freedoms will be protected in the future.

I also suspect that women, with real reason, feel even more vulnerable than men. So many of our own freedoms and opportunities have been so recent and so hard won. It’s not something anyone wants to think about on a dark night.

Dr Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough is Lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Durham University and Member in the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. In 2013, she was selected as one of ten New Generation Thinkers in a national competition run by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Dr Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough is Lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Durham University and Member in the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. In 2013 she was selected as one of 10 New Generation Thinkers in a national competition run by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

What are you looking forward to at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival? Anne Fine: Just the very fact that the festival is there, and that it has the name it does, is a huge attraction to me. Novelists do tend to get into a state of tunnel vision through each piece of work. The book takes over your brain.

So, at a festival as wide ranging as this, I’m going to be reminded that there’s a whole world out there, and an in depth exploration of issues I haven’t ever thought about, or haven’t considered for years. It’s heartening and inspiring.

And as someone who’s spent so many hours benefiting from Radio 3’s output, it’s also lovely to feel that for once I’ll be trying to contribute something too.

Eleanor Barraclough: So many things that it’s hard to choose! Obviously as a former New Generation Thinker myself, I’m always interested to see the talks given by the new NGTs.

There are lots of interesting topics this year: the hidden history of widows, the British taste for beer, an exotic recipe book from 1667, and a Victorian adventurer who didn’t let the fact that he was born with no hands and no feet hold him back.

I was lucky enough to attend one of the New Generation Thinker finals earlier this year, so I already know that festival goers are in for a treat. This year’s theme – ‘Tearing Up the Rule Book’ – is a brilliant one, and opens the way for all sorts of interesting debates.

I’m really keen to get to the discussion on male and female attitudes to rule breaking, with guests including Sheila Hancock. Sometimes these events can get really heated: I remember one debate last year where things got very passionate and I thought punches might even be thrown.

Oh, and I’m also looking forward to an enormous piece of Battenberg cake from the Sage café, it’s the best I’ve ever had…

BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival 2015 at Sage Gateshead Friday 6 – Sunday 8 November 

Now in its 10th year, the Festival brings together high-profile figures from the worlds of arts, science, politics and literature to discuss and challenge current thinking on a range of topics, this year focusing on a theme of ‘Tearing Up The Rule Book’, exploring why the idea of rule-breaking has become so attractive to business, politics, culture and other areas of public life – and asking which of our rule books need to be kept firmly intact.

Guests and speakers include:

  • American poet Claudia Rankine
    VENUE: Sage Gateshead.

    VENUE: Sage Gateshead.

  • Scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins
  • Chocolat author Joanne Harris
  • Actresses Sheila Hancock and Juliet Stevenson
  • Novelist and filmmaker Tariq Ali
  • Authors Anne Fine and Pat Barker
  • Journalist Simon Heffer
  • Theatre director and author Neil Bartlett
  • Former table tennis champion and writer Matthew Syed
  • Award-winning composer Jocelyn Pook
  • PLUS performances from Royal Northern Sinfonia, Peggy Seeger, Sam Robson, The Wilson Family, Camille O’Sullivan, Voices of Hope and The Marian Consort.
Do you enjoy coming to Sage Gateshead? Does the North-East inspire you? Anne Fine: I live only fifty miles away, in Teesdale, so the Sage is my nearest big concert hall. I also work a good deal around Newcastle, and though I was brought up in the Midlands, I now think of the North-East as home.

My partner is a botanist, and loves the sheer openness and wildness of County Durham. We came here almost by accident, but we have stayed well over twenty years. In large part I think that is because of the people. I find them easier to like and get on with than people anywhere I have ever lived. My novels are never based anywhere in particular geographically, so that’s not relevant to me. But feeling happy and settled is, and I have certainly come to feel that living here.

Eleanor Barraclough: I absolutely love coming to the Sage, it’s a wonderful space and has lots of good memories for me. The first year I came to the Free Thinking Festival (in 2013 as a New Generation Thinker) I had just moved to the North-East for a new job as lecturer in medieval literature at Durham. It was a great introduction to the area. I promptly fell in love with Newcastle, and now I live only 20 minutes’ walk from the Sage (so I’ve got no excuse to be late for anything this weekend).

Beyond Newcastle, the North-East is an extraordinary place to live. I’m always happiest and most inspired when I’m outdoors, and there’s so much to explore around here. I love the Northumberland coastline: obviously Lindisfarne (the first major Viking raid took place there in 793 AD, when they sacked the monastery and killed many of the monks), but also picturesque fishing villages such as Craster (with its famous kippers) and magnificent castles such as Banburgh and Dunstanburgh.

Hadrian’s Wall is one of my favourite places in the world, and I’m often there with friends. At Easter I hiked the whole thing with my boyfriend and some of our sisters (we have quite a few between us): he’s a historical novelist and his first novel was set on Hadrian’s Wall (The Lion and the Lamb by John Henry Clay), so I’m clearly not the only one who gets inspiration from this part of the world.

Do you have your eye on any other events you want to attend?

Eleanor Barraclough: There’s so much going on in the North-East: at the moment I’m looking forward to the fireworks at Beamish Museum tonight (November 5), and I may pop back next month for a spot of skating on their Edwardian ice rink.

There’s also the Lumiere Festival in Durham from November 12–15, and since I’m a lecturer at Durham University it would be a shame not to go. The light displays projected onto the side of the cathedral are always mind-blowing, but sometimes it’s the unexpected gems that are most memorable: I remember last time an enormous elephant stood guard over Elvet Bridge.

This year, I’ve been told that a whale is going to emerge from the River Wear itself (in fact, just below my office window, which looks out onto the water). I can’t wait to see it.

 This year’s theme ‘Tearing Up The Rule Book’ explores why  the idea of rule breaking has become so attractive to business, politics, culture and other areas of public life – what rules would you break if you could and are there any that don’t exist that would be mandatory in your dream world?

Anne Fine: A lot of rules seem to me to be more trouble than they’re worth, especially if they have been brought in as knee-jerk responses to tragedies or one-off events. The first rule raises a fresh problem, and instead of stepping back to reconsider, another rule gets slapped on top to try to plug the hole.

I’m self-employed, thank God. But when I listen to the conversations of social workers and teachers – indeed, almost anyone who deals with the young – I get the feeling that a troubling proportion of the time they spend is viewed, even by them, as a waste of time and effort in order to achieve some mythical goal of 100 per cent safety.


Tickets for the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival  will be available from the Sage Gateshead Ticket Office on 0191-4434661 or standby tickets will be available each day.